Opinion: My parents put New Orleans and its racial hierarchy behind them. I went looking for it
My niece got married last month in New Orleans. “Got married” is too tame a phrase to describe what happened: It was a celebration that was up on its feet almost immediately and didn’t sit down for the night.
Moments after the exchange of vows, the venue’s doors were thrown open and 150 guests spilled out onto Tchoupitoulas Street, where a New Orleans brass band waited. And just like that we were transformed into the kind of joyous spectacle the city is known for — whooping, dancing and waving handkerchiefs and fringed umbrellas in a traditional yet funky second-line parade. I had on the wrong shoes — spike heels, which I took off about 10 minutes in — but it hardly mattered. The city was mine.
Finally, I had arrived.
After a lifetime of piecing together New Orleans and my family’s roots there from fragments of conversation heard on the fly, I was claiming it all at once, in the most communal and celebratory way possible, and barefoot to boot.
I am part of the first generation of my family born in Los Angeles after both sides of the family migrated here from New Orleans in the 1940s and ’50s. My father came as a child in 1942, during the war; my mother as a young woman in 1956. Their families came for jobs but also to escape the segregation and stifling racial order of the South, part of a mass migration to California of Creole people from New Orleans’ 7th Ward.
I grew up absorbing anecdotes about the neighborhood they’d left, feeling as if New Orleans was being entrusted to my care, story by story. From an early age I couldn’t help wondering, though, why so many people had up and left a place where they had such deep history, most of them never to return.
Though life in the 7th Ward didn’t sound idyllic — folks were poor, for starters — bonds it forged were lasting. People talked affectionately about the good times, as well as the hardships; about how families stepped in for children whose parents weren’t there or for folks who couldn’t quite take care of themselves. My father still recalls how his family spent Sundays with his uncle and extended family after his own father died in 1936, when he was 2.
The memories of New Orleans kept the old country alive in the new one. Over time I realized that New Orleans represented home for my parents in a way that I frankly envied. I loved my birthplace and its storied advantages — Hollywood, endless space, negligible rain, an eternal sense of renewal. But I knew even at a young age, eavesdropping on my mother’s frequent phone calls with her own mother who lived across town in South Central, that I had missed something important and formative that L.A. could never be.
Of course L.A. wasn’t meant to be New Orleans. Those who came were looking in many ways for its opposite, a big city that offered decent jobs and room to grow, with a minimal amount of racism restraining things.
Modest ambitions, for sure, but progress proved elusive. L.A. was indeed different, but it was hardly paradise. In 1947, my father got the full Southern treatment when he tried to formally integrate majority white Fremont High in South Central, 10 years before Little Rock. Being Creole gave him none of the advantage or insulation it had in New Orleans, with its complicated racial hierarchy.
My mother was always unsentimental about leaving New Orleans and what it meant; when I asked her once about why she’d left, she dismissed the city as a “big ghetto.” Yet she said even this with a certain warmth, the kind of exasperation you feel for family you love but that ultimately lets you down or breaks your heart.
Meanwhile, she took to L.A. immediately, embracing its modernity and an individualism that jibed with her own inclination to live as independently as possible. My father became an activist — prompted by his Fremont experience, I believe — who held L.A.’s feet to the fire on racial justice, especially educational justice. When talking about his work he often referred to L.A. as “this town,” with the same mix of affinity and frustration my mother expressed about New Orleans. Sometimes he seemed to be talking about both towns at once.
The day after the wedding celebration, my siblings, nephew and brother-in-law set out — in the rain — to visit the 7th Ward we’d heard so much about. My parents, unable to make the trip, had described a roadmap to points of interest in their old hood.
We stopped first at the Autocrat Club, where my great-grandfather’s name is inscribed on a plaque near the entrance listing the club’s mostly Creole founders. We walked around the corner to Roman Street and stood on an empty lot where my mother’s modest house used to be. From there we trekked half a mile to Johnson Street to see where my father grew up, in a small brick shotgun-shack house. The man who lives there now — we flagged him down in the middle of the street — brought us up to date on the neighborhood, treating us as if we lived there but had simply been away awhile. At Corpus Christi-Epiphany Catholic Church down the block, we serendipitously encountered the pastor who knew right away why we had come. “You’re looking for home,” he said matter-of-factly.
In all the connecting there was also a keen sense of loss. Corpus Christi no longer runs the school my parents attended; the basement classrooms were destroyed by the floods of Hurricane Katrina 14 years ago and haven’t been rebuilt. Money hasn’t been the only obstacle. “Black people discovered they could go other places,” the pastor said, somewhat wistfully.
At Xavier Prep High School (now St. Katharine Drexel), my mother’s alma mater, the dean who showed us around remarked on how everybody eventually leaves New Orleans, one way or another. It was a statement of fact, not an accusation. He went on to say that when he visited L.A. for the first time, he headed straight to the beach and the Pacific Ocean, in his mind the greatest symbol of California freedom and mystique. “But that water is cold,” he said, laughing. It was unwelcoming. Not like New Orleans.
I still love L.A. I am from here. But part of me will always fantasize about who I would have been had I grown up in New Orleans, what I would have gained and lost as part of another generation of my family in the South. The fact is, I am both proud we broke with tradition — that’s what L.A’s all about, it’s what my parents intended — and sorry that tradition was disrupted. I may never resolve a deep uncertainty about the meaning of home, but one thing I know now is that I was formed elsewhere. New Orleans may be the place my family left, but it’s also a place that never leaves.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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